April 07, 2016

IRGC commander warns President Rouhani to back off

Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari delivered a stern warning to President Hassan Rouhani on April 5: Stop opening up to the West. Rouhani has used his success in obtaining the nuclear deal to push forward a program of economic reform and easing of tensions with the West. Jafari declared that these policies are a dangerous departure from the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary values of economic independence and diplomatic isolation from the West. It seems that the Guards’ tepid support for Rouhani’s policies over the last 18 months is coming to an end.

Rouhani has flouted his success in obtaining the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and has named his policies for change on non-nuclear matters, especially domestic economic rehabilitation and even negotiations with the West on other regional issues, “JCPOA 2.” It’s unclear what exactly Rouhani thinks “JCPOA 2” would be, but it likely entails greater expansion of economic and diplomatic relations with the West than Jafari or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei can stomach.

Supreme Leader Khamenei made his own concerns clear in a series of tweets (see here and here, for example) on March 20. He warned that there are some Iranians who think that Middle East “or domestic problems can be solved by JCPOA 2 & 3; this means giving up principles & red lines & yielding to the arrogance.” The “arrogance” being America and the West.  Jafari cast “JCPOA 2” as an alarming shift away from Iran’s revolutionary identity. He warned that those who support “a series of JCPOAs are unknowingly moving down a counter-revolutionary path.”

Jafari even took a thinly-veiled swipe at the recent gains by Rouhani allies in parliament, referring to the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami and the last time reformists held a majority in the legislature as “crises” that the regime had to overcome.  He may well have intended to suggest that the reformists’ gains in the most recent elections could generate another crisis for the regime.

Jafari’s warning to Rouhani marks an inflection in IRGC senior leadership discourse with the president. The IRGC had been criticizing Rouhani’s efforts to obtain a nuclear deal until mid-2014, when the Supreme Leader encouraged Jafari and the IRGC not to criticize Rouhani over the course of the nuclear negotiations.  Jafari may feel that all bets are off now that the deal is in place and money is flowing to the regime (and the Guards).  He may also feel threatened by Rouhani’s willingness to speak out about taboo subjects, such as the regime-imposed media blackout of any discussion of Khatami.  Jafari may well be wondering how far Rouhani intends to go down a reformist path that the leadership of the Guards clearly see as a threat to the ideals they have sworn to serve.

The significance of this escalating rhetoric is not yet clear.  The Supreme Leader has intervened in the past to calm things down and prevent open rifts between the Guards and the president.  Will he do so again, or will he allow the Guards to mount a counter-attack against reformist policies that he himself generally opposes?  Time will tell.